Confidentiality or Public Disclosure: Trump’s Gastroenterologist and an Ethical Dilemma

By Brad Segal

“If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” proclaimed Dr. Harold Bornstein. The gastroenterologist’s letter, released on the candidate’s website nine months ago, stumbles from the outset with a typo (“To Whom My Concern,”), then steamrolls over the most basic descriptions of health (medical school teaches us that vital signs are, well, vital), omits information pertinent to the public discourse (why does it fail to mention the medical reason exempting Trump from the Vietnam draft?), and strangely emphases non-medicalized traits (“His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary”). Most experts agree that this medical record, if we can even call it that, is at best hyperbole. It draws grandiose conclusions without medical justification. Even Dr. Bornstein conceded, “In the rush, I think some of those words didn’t come out exactly the way they were meant.”

Just this morning the Trump campaign released a second letter from Dr. Bornstein. But this time the doctor rather humbly concludes, “In summary, Mr. Trump is in excellent physical health.”  These letters from Dr. Bornstein’s letter demonstrate a modern-day moral dilemma in providing care for a party nominee. At conflict is the physician’s professional duty to respect patient confidentiality, and his or her obligations to care for society more broadly.

First, patient-doctor confidentiality is not merely a byproduct of the law—it is a moral obligation grounded in the core tenants of the medical profession. To put it simply, if a patient comes to expect that his doctor will tell the entire community about the patient’s most embarrassing bodily defects, the patient may understandably deny his worsening symptoms of poor health at the next office visit. In the long run, erosion of trust in the medical system could endanger the public’s health–everyone is thus better off when doctors uniformly respect patient privacy. It is important to point out, however, that an informed and competent person can voluntarily waive one’s right to patient-doctor confidentiality, such as when a patient gives a physician the permission to provide updates to family members. Or when then-candidate John McCain instructed his physicians all 1,100 pages in his medical records.

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Knowledge is Power, or Ignorance is Bliss?

By Kyle B. Brothers

You have a rare illness that seems to have a genetic cause. For years you have moved from geneticist to geneticist looking for the cause of your illness, hoping that by finding the precise genetic cause you will discover ways to alleviate your symptoms. You have had five or six genetic tests, but each one has turned up normal. Finally you visit a young geneticist fresh out of training, hoping that she will know of another test to try. She recommends the most comprehensive genetic test of all: whole genome sequencing (WGS). You are ready to immediately get this test when she poses a difficult question: WGS might reveal a cause for your illness, but it might also reveal that you are at risk for developing breast cancer, or schizophrenia, or Alzheimer’s disease. Which of these “incidental” findings do you also want to receive?

Until recently, this genomic “would you want to know” question has lived exclusively in the world of science fiction. Would you want to know what secrets your genome holds about your future? For example, would you want to know how you will die? If you knew what the future is likely to hold, would you feel fatalistic or empowered to take control of it? These questions have been the topic of compelling movies like GATTACA and classic novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Continue reading

Mental Health First Aid Training in Prisons, Police Departments, and the Presidential Election

By Wendy S. Salkin

It has been widely reported and acknowledged that many incarcerated Americans live with mental illness. In 2014, the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association published The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey, a joint report that included the following findings:

  • In 2012, there were estimated to be 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in prisons and jails. There were also approximately 35,000 patients with severe mental illness in state psychiatric hospitals. Thus, the number of mentally ill persons in prisons and jails was 10 times the number remaining in state hospitals.
  • In 44 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, a prison or jail in that state holds more individuals with serious mental illness than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital. For example, in Ohio, 10 state prisons and two county jails each hold more mentally ill inmates than does the largest remaining state hospital.

Similarly widely reported and acknowledged is that prisons often either cannot or simply do not serve the mental health treatment needs of those housed within their walls. As Ana Swanson of The Washington Post observed:

Unsurprisingly, many prisons are poorly equipped to properly deal with mental illness. Inmates with mental illnesses are more likely than other to be held in solitary confinement, and many are raped, commit suicide, or hurt themselves.

Solitary confinement is often used as a means of separating inmates living with mental illness from the rest of a prison population. As Jeffrey L. Metzner and Jamie Fellner reported in their March 2010 article, “Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons: A Challenge for Medical Ethics”: Continue reading